Crisis Talk.

What follows is the transcript of the talk I gave at the crisis meeting. It went down like a lead balloon. I tried to aim the talk somewhere between critical theory experts and novices. Unfortunately, this strategy did not result in a talk that appealed to both camps, but one that went over the heads of some people unfamiliar with Adorno and seemed trivial to people who had previously read him.  Rather than serving as a platform to discuss the relevance of critical theory to the contemporary crisis, the fragmented discussion that followed consisted in people asking me to explain the quote at the beginning, asserting that Adorno already had a proper grasp of Marx’s theory of value, or saying that I should have discussed crisis in terms of the breakdown of the Weimar Republic and the emergence of Fascism. Although I reacted badly to the last question, flippantly responding that we didn’t need Adorno to realize that Fascism might come out of this crisis, it got me thinking about the differences between the reception of critical theory in Germany and the Anglophone world. For it seems to me that the German reception of Adorno is both firmly embedded in 20th century German radical cultural history and that his work has been drawn on by groups like Krisis etc. that his theory — or at least what I’m proposing to do with it — is blase. In the Anglophone world, on the other hand, it seems like there has been a re-engagement with the early Frankfurt School and other types of Marxism in the context of the crisis, in a way that makes these blase theories new and exciting to us. At any rate, here’s the talk in all its condensed glory:

Adorno and Crisis Theory: Thoughts on the contemporary relevance of Adorno’s social theory.  

In what follows I give an outline of how I think some aspects of Adorno’s critical theory can be relevant to theories of crisis, and analyses of the social ramifications of crisis. I do this in four parts: I begin by outlining what I think are the potentially relevant aspect of Adorno’s critical theory by reading a paragraph from Negative Dialectics. I then outline what I see as a number of problems that arise when considering the contemporary relevance of Adorno’s critical theory in terms of a theory of the social crisis and as an analysis of the social effects of the crisis. I then move towards arguing for the relevance of some of Adorno’s thought by (1) providing a definition of Marxian crisis theory that draws on Heinrich, Marx’s notes on crisis in 1861-63 and his utilization of metaphors of nature in Capital and (2) Proposing how Adorno might supplement these aspects of Marx’s theory, thus making elements of Adorno’s though relevant for a theory of crisis and an analysis of its social ramifications.

What I argue are the relevant aspects of Adorno’s critical theory can be seen in the following typically complex and suggestive passage from Negative Dialectics:

‘[T]he economic process, which reduces individual interests to the common denominator of a totality, which remains negative, because it distances itself by means of its constitutive abstraction from the individual interests, out of which it is nevertheless simultaneously composed. The universality, which reproduces the preservation of life, simultaneously endangers it, on constantly more threatening levels. The violence of the self-realizing universal is not, as Hegel thought, identical to the essence of individuals, but always also contrary. They are not merely character-masks, agents of value, in some presumed special sphere of the economy. Even where they think they have escaped the primacy of the economy, all the way down to their psychology, the maison tolère, [French: universal home] of what is unknowably individual, they react under the compulsion of the generality; the more identical they are with it, the more un-identical they are with it in turn as defenceless followers. What is expressed in the individuals themselves, is that the whole preserves itself along with them only by and through the antagonism’.

I Problems.

As I see it, however, there are several problems with Adorno’s critical social theory that goes against these insights and undermines it contemporary relevance for both a critical theory of the crisis and for an analysis of the social impact of the crisis.  These problems are not in the passage I just read, but they are littered through out his work. They are bound up with what I will call a thesis of integration that often leads Adorno to view crisis in historical terms – as a failure of the proletariat to realize itself as the subject/object of history – and to a social theory that sometimes claims that the Marxian theories of value and crisis have become historically outdated. Both of which lead much of Adorno’s social theory to focus on the integration of classes and class-consciousness into mass society.

I think this is problematic because:

1)  The thesis of integration can be said have been based a Eurocentric social analysis of the golden age of the Fordist compromise, in which the working-class in western capitalist nation-states possessed a degree of affluence previously unknown. Consequently, in Adorno’s analysis, the working-class gave up class struggle for mass-culture.

2) This is reflected in a diagnosis of integration in terms of integrated consciousness – not real subsumption, the end of programmatism etc –in which the concepts Adorno used in association with Marxist categories such as second nature and reification were often formulated to analyses the naturalized appearance of capitalist society and the corresponding reified consciousness of the masses. In this aspect of Adorno’s analysis, these Marxian categories thus explained why classes and classes consciousness had been integrated into mass society on the basis of the deceptive appearance of capitalism, not an explanation of capitalism’s dynamic, nor any awareness that the stability that underwrote this integration was a blip on the radar.

3) Tied to this is another problem with Adorno’s theory. As can be seen with the terms ‘negative totality’ and the ‘violence of the self-realizing universal’ Adorno certainly has moments when he brilliant describes the capitalist system. The problem is that he never bothered to fully explicate the function of the system, thus leaving it an open question how the totality was negative or why it functions as a violent self-realizing universal.

This leads me to argue that in order for Adorno’s analysis to be of contemporary relevance it should be: transposed into a historical conjuncture in which integration – both as a thesis about working-class affluence and a critique of reified consciousness – should be off the table. Instead, the ideas of negative universality etc should be integrated with the elements of Marx’s theory of crisis based on his monetary theory of value.

II Marxian crisis theory

By a Marxian theory of crisis, then, I don’t mean the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which should have, was somehow deferred, but will still culminate in the collapse of capitalism. In my view Heinrich’s article in the April issue of ‘The Monthly Review’ shows that this law is untenable and that is not as central to Marx’s theory of crisis as traditional interpretations of Marx hold.  What I mean instead by a Marxian theory of crisis is that the very meaning of crisis should be conceived through the prism of the systematic function of capital. From this perspective the contingent, dominating and crisis-prone manner capital’s function plays out in capitalist society is the norm – whilst the reoccurring periods of the breakdown of valorization, creative destruction, the rise in surplus population and the restoration of valorization as crises are heightened or exacerbated moments of these tendencies. This would mean that capitalism is the crisis, but also that crises are always crises of capitalism. Although there are surely empirical variations in the causes of crises it seems to me that capitalist history provides adequate proof of this tendency.

So, what do I mean by this systematic function? Well as I alluded when I described the normal function of capital as crisis-prone it seems to me that fundamental categories Marx presents in his monetary theory of value up to and including his account of valorisation can be said to exhibit an inherent tendency towards crisis. This means that the systematic function of capital leads to the periodic crises that are an endemic part of capitalist history.

II.I. Marx’s monetary theory of value.

Now, of course, I don’t have enough time to relay Marx’s presentation of his monetary theory of value. So let me just flag up some relevant points:

1) Starting with Marx’s definition of capital as a historically specific mode of production in which social labour takes place in atomized production for exchange, with valorization relying on the exploitation of a class of workers who are doubly free to produce commodities, but also reliant upon successfully exchanging these commodities in what Marx calls the sphere of circulation.

2) Also pointing out the crucial role that money plays in the process of valorization as the form of value, the measure of value and the means of circulation. This makes money the absolute and independent form of wealth that unites the spheres of production and circulation, making the process of capitalist valorization – production for profit achieved by exchanging – reliant on it.

3) And finally flagging up the supraindividual and highly contingent type of compulsion that this systematic process of valorisation instigates in the form of imperatives. These imperatives are famously described by Marx using the metaphors of capital’s ‘laws of motion,’ describing capitalists as character-masks or personifications of economic categories and characterizing the function of capitalism as type of natural history because it is an inverted form of social production that instead of being controlled by man in fact controls him. The actions of individuals as capitalists or workers and their reproduction of individuals as capitalists are thus compelled by this contingent process.

But, how does this crude outline of Marx’s monetary theory of value relate to the Marxian theory of crisis I am outlining? Marx himself provides an explication by stating that crises are inherent outcomes of this systematic function of valorization.

II.II A Marxian theory of crisis

To begin with, in a typically polemical dig at bourgeois economic theories that markets normally possess an equilibrium, Marx poses the question of crisis in a way that reflects the crisis-prone nature of capitalism I have outlined:

‘the question that has to be answered is: since, on the basis of capitalist production, everyone works for himself and a particular labour must at the same time appear as its opposite, as abstract general labour and in this form as social labour — how is it possible to achieve the necessary balance and interdependence of the various spheres of production, their dimensions and the proportions between them, except through the constant neutralisation of a constant disharmony? ‘

To everyone not analyzing capital from the standpoint of bourgeois political economy, market equilibrium is thus a myth. Even in times of affluence the invisible hand is capricious, since this tendency towards disharmony is inherent to capital itself. As Marx goes on to note this is therefore true of the fundamental elements of Marx’s theory of value I outlined, which always carry with them the potential for crisis:

‘The possibility of crisis, which became apparent in the simple metamorphosis of the commodity – i.e. that fact that all individual commodities need to be exchanged for the money commodity — is once more demonstrated, and further developed, by the disjunction between the process of production (direct) and the process of circulation.†a As soon as these processes do not merge smoothly into one another [XIII-713] but become independent of one another, the crisis is there.’


‘Crisis is nothing but the forcible assertion of the unity of phases of the production process which have become independent of each other.’

However, despite Marx’s able exposition of the fundamentally crisis-prone function of Capital, and of the crises it periodically and endemically triggers, he draws short of a fully-fledged map of the social content of crisis:


‘The world trade crises must be regarded as the real concentration and forcible adjustment of all the contradictions of bourgeois economy. The individual factors, which are condensed in these crises, must therefore emerge and must be described in each sphere of the bourgeois economy and the further we advance in our examination of the latter, the more aspects of this conflict must be traced on the one hand, and on the other hand it must be shown that its more abstract forms are recurring and are contained in the more concrete forms.’

III Adorno

This is where I believe the elements of Adorno’s theory outlined in the opening quotation can be relevant. Combining them in tandem with this Marxian theory of crisis on one hand can be said to have addressed the problems I brought up with Adorno’s theory of crisis and the means by which it prevents using his theory for an analysis of the social ramifications of crisis. Adorno’s thesis of intergration can be discarded and his insights might now be based on a more systematic apprehension of capitalism as inherently crisis-prone and contingent with a reading of the current crisis as a pronounced moment of these tendencies. On the other hand Adorno’s insights might help colour in the map Marx proposes. I could see this occurring in three ways.


1) Adorno’s description of negative totality and the violence of the self-realising universal with Marx’s supraindividual account of valorization qua his monetary theory of value. On one hand this realigns Adorno’s insights with the Marxian law of value he sometimes dismisses, providing a basis for the account of why and how totality is negative in Marx’s account of valorization. On the other it expands the account that Marx gives, demonstrating how the economy is embedded in concrete social and cultural forms.

2) Marx’s account of the capricious natural law like function of capital with Adorno’s notion of self-preservation. This again fleshes out Marx’s account by possibly providing an indepth account of how these natural laws compel individual behaviour. In Adorno’s case, rather than account of second nature based on illusory appearance this would mean basing his account of self-preservation on something more capricious and contingent then his thesis of integration. Although self-preservation would be the norm in periods of relative stability it might prove an interesting way of reading problems of reproduction in times of crisis for both capital and for prolitarians.

3) By relating these to two points to what might be termed an ethnography of individuality. Such an enthnography could look into the ways that individuals are constituted, compelled and reflective of ‘negative totality. It would thus, as Adorno already indicates with his use of character masks, unite Marx with Adorno’s statement that ‘what is expressed in the individuals themselves, is that the whole preserves itself along with them only by and through the antagonism.’  This might also be a strategic way of aligning Adorno’s focus on the plight of individuals with the rhetoric of neo-liberalism through accounts of how these supraindivdual forces intervene at an individual level compelling behavour, leaving people open to contingency and generalised misery in these heightened periods of crisis.

At any rate, I hope the above has provided some insight into the strengths and weaknesses of Adorno’s critical theory in relation to the current social crisis.

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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1 Response to Crisis Talk.

  1. “It went down like a lead balloon.”

    You mean to say there was a….

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